Monday, February 20, 2017

David McKinley Williams

Today is the 130th anniversary of the birth of composer and church musician David McK. Williams (1887-1978), who was born in Wales, but came to Colorado in this country as a child with his family. Some of his earliest musical training was as a boy chorister at the Cathedral of St. John in the Wilderness in Denver, and by age 13 he was the organist at St. Peter's Church in that city.

In 1908 he moved to New York City, where he was organist and music director at Grace Church Chapel and the Church of the Holy Communion (where William Muhlenberg had been rector) with a break to study in Paris (1911-1914) and another to serve in World War I with the Royal Canadian Artillery (his photograph here is from those years).

Not long after his return from Europe in 1920 he became the director of music at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church, where he would remain for the next twenty-six years and raise the level of music at that church to become one of the best-regarded in that city. His organ playing, both accompanying the choir and congregation, and in recital, was beloved by his peers, and he was also admired for the force of his personality. He also wrote several hymn tunes (most of them unison settings rather than in traditional four-part harmony - and also still under copyright), anthems and various service music items for Episcopal worship. He served on the committee that produced the Episcopal Hymnal 1940 (which includes six of his tunes).

However, Williams was also openly gay (whatever that would have meant in that time), and was suddenly dismissed from his position in 1946. This would certainly have been known for some time by leadership at St. Bartholomew's, and it's possible that action was not taken earlier because Williams was a close friend and colleague of composer Amy Beach, a parishioner and probably a significant donor to the church (who died in 1944). The congregation was told that  Williams had developed hearing problems and would be taking a leave of absence and leaving the city to seek treatment.

Following his forced retirement he remained in New York, in spite of the claims by church leadership, headed the organ department at the Juilliard School of Music and was a faculty member at the School of Sacred Music at Union Seminary. He remained active in church music circles and the local chapter of the American Guild of Organists, where younger people in later years couldn't recall any significant hearing issues.

This 2015 recording of Williams' anthem In the year that King Uzziah died is by the choir of Trinity Lutheran Church in Des Plaines, Illinois, directed by Brad Whaley.

Anthem text is from Isaiah 6:1-8.


Thomas Charles Strickland said...

Thanks for this remembrance. I met Williams at his 90th birthday evensong, a few years before being assistant at St. Bart's. Then some 106 years after Williams became organist at St. Peter's in Denver. (Only there for two years.) Happy birthday, David.

C.W.S. said...

Thanks, Tom. I remember talking briefly with you and Mark about Williams at the HS Conference in Colorado Springs.